That the flames of ambition have turned to fading embers did not prevent me from attending what will be (ostensibly) my only book party of the year.That the fete was hosted by the inimitable Katherine Powers (whose tome Suitable Accommodations is forthcoming later this summer)was,of course, an encouraging sign. In my past, larger life I was a diligent and ubiquitous attendent of all manner of festivities: commercial, artistic , personal, cultural, callow networking and so on.Now, recognizing the low value of most of those events and having calmed down significantly, I have a preference for remaining within the confines of my somnambulistic zip code. In this instance trekking over to Cambridge for the celebration of George Scailabba’s latest and 4th opus. For the Republic: Political Essays (Pressed Wafer books) balanced out the ordeal of battling traffic as I crossed the Charles River.
The affair turned out to be attended by a lively and congenial gaggle of George’s admirers. Among the illustrious attendees were John Summers, editor of the Baffler; Susan Faludi, a Baffler contributor and well-known social critic; novelists Russ Reimer, Leslie Lawrence, Monica Hileman, and Jane Unrue; George Kovach and Cat Parnell of Consequence Magazine; Lindsay Waters of Harvard University Press; and too many other literary eminences to mention.
For a number of not very good reasons you probably have not heard of George. This is partially explained by Scott McLemee in his 2006 profile:
George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University who has just published a volume of selected pieces under the title Divided Mind, issued by a small press in Boston called Arrowsmith. The publisher does not have a Web site. You cannot, as yet, get Divided Mind through Amazon, though it is said to be available in a few Cambridge bookstores. This may be the future of underground publishing: Small editions, zero publicity, and you have to know the secret password to get a copy. [contact information for Pressed Wafer Press is at the bottom of this page —for anyone inclined to put a check in the mail.*)
When interviewed for his 2009 tome What Are Intellectuals Good For?(Pressed Wafer) George was asked his preference “bad writers who are politically congenial or good writers whose politics he dislikes?”
It’s a complex question,” he says, “leading in all sorts of directions. I’m going to offer a simplified and peremptory answer. Better good writers with bad politics than bad writers with good politics. The former teach us how to think (and feel and imagine); the latter merely what to think. Knowing how to think is incomparably more important. Unless most people know how to think, there can’t be genuine democracy.”
In 2012 with the publication of his (then)most recent collection of essays, The Modern Predicament(Pressed Wafer), here’s his answer to the query,” What, in brief, is the modern predicament? Which authors, and what lived experience in history, most shaped your understanding of it?”:
Modernity is the ensemble of changes – intellectual, political, economic, social, cultural, technological, aesthetic – that have altered the world drastically since roughly the 17th century, until which time the world was, in the above respects, far less different from the world of any previous epoch of recorded history than it is from the world of today. The modern predicament is the set of problems these changes have bequeathed us.
One problem is our loss of ontological, social, and psychological embeddedness. Formerly, the meaning and purposes of life were, to a far greater extent, simply given for most people by the religious, family, and societal structures in which they were born and grew up. Very few people, and even those people to a limited extent, were expected or encouraged to become individuals, free to make fundamental choices about love, religion, occupation, political allegiance, even location. Only a tiny elite could aspire to an individual identity and an individual history.
Nowadays everyone, or at least most people in the rich countries – I realize that this still leaves out most of humankind – can be an individual. But that turns out to be difficult. Over millions of years, we evolved characters and psyches that needed to be held in and held up by intense bonds, usually provided by strong families and local communities. For many reasons – economic development, geographical mobility, religious tolerance, the rise of nation-states, the emancipation of women – those bonds have weakened over the last few centuries. The resulting freedom obviously has enormous benefits for the previously unindividuated. But for many people it also has costs: isolation, loneliness, purposelessness, powerlessness, and hyperstimulation.
The modern predicament, then, is the difficulty of finding a sane, harmonious balance among all the vast and various consequences of science, technology, democracy, mass literacy, feminism, and the other forms of modern progress.
My own involvement with these questions began in college, when the devout Catholicism in which I was brought up – I was actually a member of the traditionalist religious order Opus Dei – met and was vanquished by the 18th- and 19th-century secular critique of religion. For some years after that I was not only a passionate anti-clericalist and philosophical materialist (as I still am), but also a fervent believer in progress as a fairly linear process, a smooth upward slope in which all that was necessary was to complete the long march through all the orthodoxies, religious, political, and sexual, which the Enlightenment had begun.
Then, in my thirties, I encountered the two most important (for me) critics of modernity, D.H. Lawrence and Christopher Lasch. Lawrence was a kind of Hebrew prophet, not of righteousness but of the body, and against what he perceived (at least in early-20th-century-England) as a disastrous over-valuing of the mental, the conceptual, the explicit – what used to be called, roughly from Kant to G.E. Moore, the Ideal. He was a pagan, reasserting the importance of all the wisdom that had been forgotten in the course of the (necessary) rejection of traditional religion and metaphysics. He was also the finest prose stylist I had ever encountered, so I was (and still am) blown away. His essays, collected in the two volumes of Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers are one of the great neglected resources of European culture. I try to say why in the essay “Shipwrecked” in The Modern Predicament.
Lawrence was a bit archaic and exotic; Christopher Lasch was as American as apple pie or Walt Whitman. With different materials and a completely different intellectual and verbal style from Lawrence, he made a subtly parallel argument about the forgotten wisdom of pre-modernity, in particular of the producerist, or yeoman, or civic republican tradition. I’ve written about him at length in both What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament, but I’m still coming to terms with him.
Morten Høi Jensen has an accurate, succinct take on George Scialabba
… Scialabba’s eloquent prose and boundless literary-intellectual reserves shrug off these claims to redundancy. He is a natural heir to the critics whose lives, works, and careers he explicated so sympathetically in What Are Intellectuals Good For?: Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Lionel Trilling, Randolph Bourne, Irving Howe. He is a counterargument to his own claims about generalists. Reading George Scialabba emphasizes the need for more George Scialabbas.
For the Republic is divided into 4 sections: Theories, Thinkers, Plutocratic Vistas and Rant which include ruminations on a wide array of sages and savants—IF STone, Gore Vidal.the Christophers(Lasch and Hitchens),Tony Judt, Thomas Friedman, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell,Victor Serge and Ed Hirsch.In his Introduction to For the Republic Rutgers History mentor Jackson Lears concludes:
But if the forces of inevitability triumph (as their prophets claim they inevitably will), it will not be George Scialabba’s fault. Through the dark decades of Reaganism and neoliberalism, he helped us sort through the portentous trivia and see (against all odds) what really matters…One is reminded of William James, who (according to John Jay Chapman)always seemed as if “he stepped out this sadness in order to meet you.” Sometimes even everyday acts require a quiet heroism. We can only be grateful that Scialabba, like James, has continued to summon it.
*McClemee writes “the publisher seems to be avoiding crass commercialism (not to mention convenience to the reader) by keeping Divided Mind out of the usual online bookselling venues. You can order it from the address below for $13, however. That price includes shipping and handling:Arrowsmith, 11 Chestnut Street, Medford, MA 02155″
And For the Republic can be gotten at Harvard Bookstore or from Pressed Wafer, 375 Parkside Ave, Brooklyn NY 11226. Or from Amazon.
Currently reading Snapper by Brian Kimberling (Pantheon)